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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, January 8, 2016

Rafael Nadal

Nearly untouchable on first serve, Rafael Nadal beat Illya Marchenko, 6-3, 6-4, to reach his 99th career final in Doha.

Photo credit: Qatar Tennis Federation

On a chilly desert evening, Rafael Nadal served Illya Marchenko a trip to the cold corner of the court.

Twisting his slider serve out wide to displace his opponent in the doubles alley, Nadal posted a crisp 6-3, 6-4 victory surging into his 99th career final in Doha.

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"(My) 99th career final, it's a great number," Nadal said. "(I) will try to play and be ready for tomorrow and play a good match. That's another fight; makes me happy. I hope to get to 100."

Continuing his pursuit for his first hard-court title since he beat Gael Monfils to win the 2014 Doha crown, Nadal will face either world No. 1 Novak Djokovic or Tomas Berdych in tomorrow's final.

Relentless in baseline rallies, Nadal broke Marchenko's opening service game. He dotted the T with an ace for 3-0.

Nadal played this semifinal with the urgency of a man embracing a personal confirmation day. Consistently whipping the wide slider on the ad side, the 2014 champion won the first 23 points played on his first serve.

"I'm very happy to be back in the final," Nadal said. "It's always a great feeling, especially the first week fo the season. (It's) very important for me to confirm that I finished last season playing better and started this season playing better."

Playing with a long-sleeved black t-shirt beneath his lemon-colored Reebok top to ward off the desert chill, Marchenko quickened his swing and picked up the pace to deny a pair of break points in the sixth game.

A clever high backhand volley struck sensitively with underspin, followed by a banging serve winner wide gave Nadal double set point at the 33-minute mark.

On his second set point, Nadal curled a slider serve out wide ending a controlled set where he played proactive tennis. Nadal won 100 percent of his first-serve points (14 for 14) and five of seven trips to net in an active set.

Shifting spins on serve helped the second seed stay ahead. Nadal mixed sharp slice wide with his kick serve, occasionally banging the flatter serve down the T on the deuce side.

Put to the test to open the second set, Marchenko answered with authority. He spun a forehand winner down the line to stave off a second break point. Leaning in, the world No. 94 blasted a diagonal winner.

Nadal laced his fifth ace leveling at 1-all. Squeezing the errors out of his opponent, Nadal drew a wild forehand to break at love for 3-2.

Nadal struck his forehand with more conviction than he did in his three-set quarterfinal win over Andrey Kuznetsov, but nudged a routine backhand volley into net to face break point. At that point, Marchenko had to know the wide serve was coming, but he couldn't stop the torment when driven into the doubles alley. Nadal punched a forehand down the line to save the break point, eventually holding for 4-2.

Swinging freely, Nadal even showed the tweener chasing down ball to extend a point in the eighth game. When Marchenko launched a forehand that missed the mark, Nadal wrapped up a one hour, 17-minute win with a smile and clenched fist toward the fans.


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